Accountants occupy a special place in engineers’ demonology. They’re the guys whose job is to spoil things when the engineering team comes up with a brilliant, creative idea. There isn’t any money for it, they will say, or it would not sell in enough volume to be viable. You certainly would not want to put an accountant in charge of, say, a small, specialist competition car builder, which is more than anything else dependent on engineering innovation.
So something has gone wrong. For here is David Bowes, chemistry degree, chartered accountant, 15 years at Rover, who last month was appointed managing director of Lola Cars International a company with a 40-year pedigree in designing racing cars, and which is about to launch a consultancy arm. All of which puts him in a good position to stand up for his profession: are accountants really that bad?
‘There are two schools of accountancy: one is the old dead hand of finance which appears to be there to say ‘no’ to things. They’re the most difficult type to work with. They stare into the team from the outside,’ he says.
The other is more about teamwork. ‘Rover has a good team of financial people who would rather be involved in creating a solution with the engineers.’
Bowes places himself firmly in the ‘teamwork’ camp. ‘At Rover I was able to help engineers gain an appreciation of commercial realities: the balance between investment and payback, how to work backwards from a result. How to start with payback, volume and margins, and come up with a proposal I was likely to approve.’
But, he adds, this is only OK up to a point: ‘There’s an element of freedom an engineer needs to be creative: it’s not his role to get bogged down.’
At Rover, Bowes spent a year as motor sport manager where he was ‘smitten’ with the motor racing bug. He also lived through two significant changes in working culture, which had a profound influence on him.
The first came during his time as finance controller for Rover’s engineering division in the late 1980s, at the height of the company’s partnership with Honda. Bowes was closely involved in adapting Honda practices such as empowerment, continuous improvement and simultaneous engineering, ‘and translating them into the equivalent for us’.
Then, in the early 1990s, while he was finance and strategy director for the engine and gearbox division, the company was bought by BMW, which again had a different culture. ‘We learned empowerment and teamworking from Japan,’ says Bowes. ‘From BMW we learned the importance of attention to detail, being rigorous about procedures for problem-solving.’ Throughout the adaptation, the aim was to absorb these concepts while harnessing the inherently good parts of British culture, such as individualism.
This has left Bowes with a fascination for different cultures, ‘being humble enough to learn from the competition’, and bringing the best bits together.
He joins Lola as it, too, emerges from a period of upheaval. Founded in 1958 by Eric Broadley, it has been consistently successful in designing winning racing cars in most formulae. Lola cars have won the Indy championship six times, and it designed the legendary Ford GT40 with Ford.
But in 1997 an attempt to compete in Formula One went drastically wrong. A sponsor pulled out after two races, leaving the firm with huge debts and forcing it into administration. Because its expertise had been spread too thinly, its Indycar did not perform well either, and all but one of its teams went to rival makers for the 1998 season.
Six months ago Lola was bought out of administration by businessman and racing driver Martin Birrane. Bowes will be leading a threefold strategy to re-invigorate and develop the business.
First, a £5m engineering facility is being built in a new three-storey building. It will house a state-of-the art wind tunnel capable of air speeds up to 60m/s, and a seven-post chassis dynamics rig. This rig allows road loads measured on real cars on race circuits, plus aerodynamic data such as downforce measured in the wind tunnel, to be ‘played back’ on a test chassis. Companies can then simulate a racetrack anywhere in the world to develop optimum suspension settings, for example.
Second, Lola’s manufacturing facility is being expanded to bring composite manufacture in-house. ‘The composite body tub represents 40% of the value of a racing car. Bringing it in-house will give us the flexibility to be a good supplier to ourselves, and free more funds to invest.’
Third is new products. ‘We’ve significantly improved the Indycar and we believe we have a winning car again,’ says Bowes. He believes more teams will return to Lola for next season. And a new International Sport Racing Series (ISRS) car is on course to be unveiled this summer.
Lola has won the contract to provide cars for Formula 3000 a one-make series in which a sole supplier is appointed for three years at a time starting next season. ‘That should mean 40 cars for next year’s season,’ says Bowes. The company has also been appointed sole supplier of Indy Light cars in the US to 2000.
All this means that Lola expects to expand its workforce by 50% from the current 70. But on top of that, there is a plan to develop a niche engineering consultancy.
‘We design every part of a racing car except the engine,’ says Bowes. ‘We have excellent aerodynamic engineering and composite design skills. With the new wind tunnel, rig and manufacturing facility we’ll be able to offer a package from design and testing to manufacture. It would be foolish not to consider that as a package we can sell.’ And Lola is ‘a sexy name’ to include as a badge on the back of a vehicle.
So might the Sierra Cosworth and Lotus Astra be followed by, say, the Rover 200 Lola? ‘We haven’t ruled out any possibilities,’ says Bowes. ‘But we have to be very careful the engineering consultancy doesn’t dilute the racing side, but underpins it. We have to protect the Lola brand as an exciting engineering-led company that wins races.’
Planning for the consultancy is at an early stage. But Bowes says it should be possible for turnover from the racing side of the business to grow from the historical level of about £15m to £20m. And, he believes, ‘the consultancy could match that’.
Bowes believes that, while the culture of a company like Lola is different from a volume producer like Rover, each could learn from the other. ‘But one key thing I’ve learned from Rover is that the only thing that will create a long-term sustainable advantage is your people. What I want to do is take a group of excellent individuals and blend them together into the best team we can build.’